Saturday, October 24, 2009

Stuck in a Book - Guest Post - David Carr

Yesterday I received my monthly newsletter from Novelist: RA News in which the editor David Carr eloquently mused about how we can sometimes find ourselves bogged down when reading an excellent book. I've often wondered why sometimes a book just doesn't "click" with me the first time, and yet I can return to it at another time and find it myself absolutely absorbed. This actually happened to me earlier this year. The first time I read Olive Kitteridge (long before it won the Pulitzer) I just could not like this book or this character. I forced myself to read it because it was set in Maine, and because I just kept feeling I should like it. Then about 5 months later, I read it again, this time with an online book group, and I saw it in a whole different light.

The book David refers to "Cutting with Stone" was highly recommended by a good friend, but I really struggled with it. I have resolved to give it another try though so I can see if it too is one of those that simply must be read at the "right time."

So I asked David, and he has graciously consented, for permission to reprint his opening article from the October issue of RA News: Stuck in a Book. If your library is lucky enough to have a subscription to the Novelist database, you too may be able to subscribe to this delightful newsletter and get the benefits of David's monthly musings.
Stuck in a Book 
by David Carr, editor, RA News from Novelist

Earlier this year I reviewed a book I loved: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. In my review, I said that its excellence would make it difficult for me to find another book of similar magnitude. I wonder if that is one reason why I now find myself stuck in a fine police novel about postwar Britain, Flesh Wounds by John Lawton. I am enjoying it, and I'll read other books in this series; but I feel that it will never end. It seems to be adding new pages as I read. Meanwhile I am eyeing, almost apologetically, other books waiting for me: "Sorry, Philip Roth, Tana French, William Trevor, Joan Silber, this is just taking a little longer than I had expected." So my pleasure is diminished and I am not giving Mr. Lawton my best attention while it feels as if my other (better, smarter?) books wait patiently. It is their unrealized reader who is impatient.

So many conditions have to align properly when we read, I think. We need true reading time, not just a stolen few minutes before sleep. We need a book that moves us forward with complexity and engagement, not density and confusion. This means fictional lives with human characteristics and consequential presence in our imaginations. And we need to be able to finish the book in a reasonable span of time. The alignment of all these things -- and there are many more, I believe -- is often out of our hands. Ideal conditions are episodic and temporary, like a patch of great weather.

This has become more important to me as I begin to think seriously about setting some clear reading plans. I have classics, crime novels, westerns, Victorian fiction, novels of the First World War, countless essays, nonfiction works, all in my "to be read before death" lists. I don't want to cheat myself of Middlemarch or At Swim-Two-Birds or What is the What because I made an easy choice that I seem unable to finish up. (Listen to me: I'm complaining when I read, complaining when I don't read. Fickle, feckless.) In this case, what has happened to me is that I picked this book up instead of another, started reading and felt the casual commitment turn into a reluctant obligation, even as I read other nonfiction books and professional articles for my classes.

My feelings as a reader are mixed. I need to read something fresh, but -- you probably know the story -- I'm more than halfway done, it's really a pretty interesting narrative and the characters and their behaviors fit my tastes. I'm just not enchanted. I wish I were reading more happily, less perfunctorily, and faster. Those great books -- they make it harder for the "merely" good ones.

David Carr

So fellow readers what do you think?  Do find yourself reading a book to completion because you feel like you've invested time in it already?  Do you have criteria you use to decide when to abandon a book? When to put it aside to return to later? How often do you put a book down?

Again, many thanks to David Carr for permission to reprint his thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. I'm often in the same predicament because I can only read one book at a time, plus magazines. I frequently read long histories or biographies that I enjoy but that seem to go on forever - I like the comment that the book seems to add pages as he reads. I'm also as unable to skip parts of books as I am to throw away books. I don't see a solution.


Welcome, thanks for stopping by. Now that you've heard our two cents, perhaps you have a few pennies to throw into the discussion. Due to a bunch more anonymous spam getting through, I've had to disallow anonymous comments. I try to respond to all comments posing a question, but may not always get to you right away.